Thatcher’s Challenge To The Labour Movement

Chapter Seventeen


THE RESISTANCE of the steelworkers considerably enhanced the resolve of other workers to stop the Thatcher juggernaut in its tracks.

 The mood of the working class was demonstrated in the mighty 140,000-strong TUC demonstration through London in early March. This was called to protest against the government’s anti-union laws and its economic policies. 

It was the biggest union demonstration since the protest against Heath’s anti-union act in February 1971. Noticeable was the participation of Militant supporters and particularly Labour Party Young Socialists who were “applauded as they entered Trafalgar Square singing the ‘Internationale’.” (1)

There was a general feeling, percolating the labour movement and the working class, that British workers faced an economic catastrophe unless the leaders of the movement acted. The Times was speaking about the “irreversible decline” of British capitalism. With this could come a drastic undermining of all the past gains of workers.

The mood began to grow for the TUC to call a one-day strike – on 14 May, it had been suggested. The TUC called a “day of action” but refused to go the whole way and call for a complete shutdown. Notwithstanding the attitude of the leaders, 14 May was still a massive demonstration of working-class opposition to the Tory government. 

The key industries, the mines, railways, ports and shipbuilding were paralysed by strike action. Tens of thousands of workers stopped work to take part in the day of action. Militant supporters spoke on platforms throughout the country receiving an enthusiastic response. The main reason for the partial success of the day of action lay not with the leaders, the TUC tops, but with the shop stewards and trades councils who took local initiatives. 

There was no clear call for a campaign to force a general election and bring down the Tories. However, the increased combativity of the working class, shown in the steelworkers’ strike, in the magnificent demonstration in March, and also in the day of action on 14 May raised once more the issue of the general strike.

Militant devoted space to discussing this issue from a theoretical and practical point of view. Marxists do not play with the slogan of a general strike. In times of heightened class tensions some organisations rush forward with the slogan for an unlimited general strike. On the other hand, right-wing trade union leaders feared the idea of a general strike as the devil fears holy water. 

In April, Len Murray, general secretary of the TUC, opposed the idea of a general strike in a TV interview on the grounds that if the unions won they would not know what to do with the power they had! He had also denounced as “political illiteracy” the widespread feeling of workers to make the 14 May stoppage a means of mobilising the mass of the working people for a general election to bring down the government.

Militant carried a thoroughgoing analysis of the situation in Britain comparing it to the time of the last general strike in 1926. That was a serious defeat for the working class which took decades to recover from. A general strike under modern conditions, particularly in the early 80s, would not necessarily turn out as in 1926. 

The outcome in 1980 “would be similar to that in France 1968”. The 1968 general strike was only called off by the granting of big concessions to the working class in the form of wage increases and cuts in the working week:

So too in Britain a similar development will undoubtedly mean a partial victory for the working class. But the derailment of a general strike could also result in disillusionment for advanced workers particularly as power would be posed before the working class. For all of these reasons Militant opposes the slogan of an unlimited general strike at this stage in Britain. 

The task is to win the vast majority of the trade union and labour movement to the programme and the perspective of forcing the resignation of this Tory government, and the coming to power of a Labour government on a socialist programme. This can best be achieved by the slogan of a 24-hour general strike, as a warning to the Tories. (2)

Militant then went on to show that after a general strike, even one limited to 24 hours, that Britain “would never be the same again. A 24-hour general strike or a series of 24-hour general strikes could prepare the ground for an all-out general strike at a later stage.” (3)

While the history of this time tends to concentrate on the battles between right and left within the labour movement it is often overlooked that it was also a period of big demonstrations and huge social convulsions.

For instance, the left-controlled NEC of the Labour Party called a series of magnificent demonstrations on the issue of unemployment. Over 150,000 had gathered in an historic demonstration in Liverpool in November 1980. This was followed by massive demonstrations in Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and London. For the first time in generations the Labour Party had actually taken the initiative in mobilising working people in action.

The relationship of forces was such that the Thatcher government was compelled to step back from its plans for a head-on confrontation with the labour movement. This was shown in the mining industry in early 1981. The threat to begin the closure of the mines was met with the threat of immediate strike action in South Wales. This resulted in panic within the government. Thatcher, for the first time since she came to power, was forced into a

humiliating retreat… there was not even the faintest hint that the government could have used the Employment Act against the miners or against solidarity action, and it is already clear that the episode has boosted the morale and confidence of other groups of workers such as the civil servants and water workers who are now preparing to take on the Tories over pay. (4)

However Militant went on to warn: “The miners showed what could be done by bold and determined action, but if the Tories are allowed to do it, they will come back later with further attacks on workers’ rights and living standards.” (5)

As in the past (for instance in 1925) when the capitalists face resistance by the labour movement they bide their time, build up their forces, and prepare to strike later. Invariably the tops of the trade unions complacently accept the situation without any serious preparation for future battles. The miners were to pay a very heavy price later after Thatcher and her boot boy Nicholas Ridley had built up coal stocks, beefed up the police and prepared new laws in order to try and smash the miners.

Militant’s 500th Edition

This movement coincided with issue 500 of Militant. The confidence of the paper’s supporters was indicated by the statement celebrating this event: 

The newspaper is more than paper and print and photographs. It is an expression of what is now a vibrantly Marxist current inside the working class. (6)

Militant’s enemies certainly recognised its significance. In January 1980 the house journal of British capitalism, The Times, under the headline, “Time for a Purge”, called for action to be taken against Militant. (7)

They directly linked the swing towards the left with the increased significance of Militant and its supporters within the labour movement: “The growth of the Militant tendency is, therefore, linked to the constitutional disputes within the party.” (8)

The Times’s companion in lies, The Sun, carried one of many similar diatribes against Militant under the headline “The Danger that Lurks in the Left”. The twist this time was “how they [Militant] get at the kids”. (9)

As usual it was “Dr Death”, David Owen, who let the cat out of the bag. He revealed the real intentions behind the attack on Militant. At a meeting in Newcastle, organised by the misnamed Campaign for a Labour Victory, Owen singled out Militant as the “real enemy” but told the meeting that, “the group that we are after is the [left-wing] NEC”. (10)

Owen’s speech signified that the right, increasingly isolated within the labour movement, were hysterically attacking the left as a step towards an open split in the Labour Party. In February 1980 the Social Democratic Alliance announced that they would stand their own ‘Social Democratic’ candidates against left Labour candidates in the next general election. 

If such a statement would have been made by Militant it would have led to immediate expulsions from the party. No such action was taken against the right. Indeed, ‘left’ leaders like Michael Foot attempted to persuade and plead with them not to split the Labour Party.

But the threats of the right were to no avail. At the Labour Party conference in October

an historic step forward was taken… when the constitution was amended to provide for the automatic, mandatory reselection of MPs, and when conference voted for the principle of a wider franchise for election of a party leader. (11)

However, the run-up to the conference was punctuated with the rising tide of attacks on Militant fuelled by the Underhill Report. Consisting of 522 pages and weighing 5lbs, and at a cost of £35, this report was calculated to cripple Militant. But the left national executive committee merely noted the report, refusing to carry out the instructions of the capitalist press and the Tory leadership for a purge of Militant.

The Riots

In April 1980 there were youth explosions and riots in Bristol. 

This was followed by similar events in April 1981 in Brixton and, in July , in Toxteth, Liverpool. In all three movements Militant was present, playing a positive role to win the youth to socialist ideas. 

The explosions were the result of heavy-handed police patrolling and harassment of the youth, combined with mass unemployment and the worsening of the social conditions of the poor in the inner-city areas. Militant quoted from a statement from the LPYS: “Since its formation the Special Patrol Group has been systematically deployed against blacks and trade unionists engaged in action.” (12)

Militant demanded an end to police harassment, the disbandment of the Special Patrol Group and a job and living wage for all. But as serious as St Paul’s was, it was as nothing to the upheaval which took place in Brixton. Militant reported:

It was provoked by a massive police presence on Friday night and, specifically, the fighting was started by one particularly brutal arrest at about 5pm on Saturday. The youth of the area hit back at police. (13)

The spark which led to this explosion was “the feelings of frustration and anger… in the black community over the Deptford fire, in which 13 black people died.” (14)

Contrary to the arguments of the press at the time, and legend since then, this was not a ‘race riot’. The anger and violence was directed entirely against the police.

The fighting mostly involved blacks, but that was because it was mostly blacks who lived in the decayed, central area of Brixton. But both black and white youth were involved. White people moving about the area of the fighting, of whom there were a great many, were not attacked, or threatened, or intimidated. (15)

Militant supporters intervened to try and give the movement a positive direction. Under their initiative the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton was formed, which organised mass meetings and elaborated a fighting programme, the central demands of which were:

An urgent labour movement enquiry, step up the fight for socialist solutions to the social and economic crisis underlying the explosion [and for an] enquiry into the police.16

This committee received widespread support both from the community and the labour and trade union movement. Militant supporters, such as Clare Doyle, played a central role in the organising of the Defence Committee. Because of this intervention and a visit to Liverpool at the time of the Toxteth riots she was predictably dubbed “Red Clare” by the media.

These events were the most serious riots in Britain this century. Brixton and Toxteth were just the most visible expression of a widespread uprising that was taking place, certainly amongst the youth, in 1980-81. We pointed out:

Riots have broken out in nearly all the main cities because the same bleak conditions, the same frustrations, the same hatred of the Tories and the same anger at the police exists everywhere. (17)

The Tory government was stunned by these events with Thatcher herself visiting Liverpool and according to The Times visibly “tired and drawn”. Militant reported the comments of a Liverpool worker: “If we’d have got hold of her, she would have been hung, drawn and quartered!” 

Militant earned the hostility of the capitalist press and the right in the labour movement because it intervened in every movement of the working class, including these events, seeking to give a positive lead. As the Toxteth riots unfolded the LPYS also intervened:

Our second leaflet on Sunday night pointed out the futility of rioting, and pointed to a political answer to these problems. The response was tremendous. Along Upper Parliament Street and Kingsley Road, amid all the fighting, there was an understanding of the reasons for the rioting that showed the real readiness to fight against capitalism. 

The fact that this hatred of capitalism was being channelled into a riot is a condemnation of the Labour and trade union movement, which has failed to give a real alternative to those youth, a condemnation of successive Labour governments which have abjectly failed to solve the social problems. (18)

We did not hesitate to show the negative aspects commenting that the mood of sympathy at the outbreak

changed completely as the night wore on. As we left the main area of the riot, we walked down Lodge Lane. Not a policeman was in sight, yet gangs of youth were breaking into shops, setting fire to buildings and intimidating the local population. Any sympathy that there was rapidly disappeared, as people used the riots to line their own pockets. (19)

We concluded:

The Young Socialists and the Labour Party can really grow out of the present events. But only if we state clearly our opposition to looting and violence, and stand firm on our socialist programme. (20)

In the aftermath of the riot the Scarman Report, commissioned by the government, revealed in plain language that a section of the police had for years been systematically harassing youth, especially black youth. Also the government conjured up a ‘Minister for Liverpool’, Michael Heseltine, who promised to eradicate the social conditions which had led to Britain’s most serious riot this century. Militant pointed out: “Heseltine’s visit to Liverpool is a farce! It is designed as a public relations exercise to cover up the fact that the Tories have no answers.” (21)

This Tory millionaire had just spent £10,000 on food and drink at a lavish birthday party for his daughter. The net result of Heseltine’s and the Tories’ intervention in Liverpool was a massive tree planting exercise in Toxteth. Liverpool wags commented it was good for the dogs but the unemployed got little change out of Heseltine. However, one result of the riots was the demand for greater control of the police, particularly of the infamous Liverpool police chief, Kenneth Oxford.

More support for Militant

The increased intervention of Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists both in 1980 and 1981 led to a substantial increase in Militant’s support and numbers. The number of Militant supporters had leapt to 2,360 by July and increased to 2,500 by the end of the year. The LPYS also grew. This was clearly revealed at the conferences that took place in Llandudno in 1980 and in Bridlington in 1981. 

The LPYS, under the influence of Militant supporters, did not restrict its activities to the committee rooms of the labour movement but was active in all movements affecting the youth; on the street, in the factories, offices and workplaces. They also led an important series of labour movement demonstrations in 1980-81 and sought to intervene in all issues which affected working-class youth.

In the teeth of the obvious widespread support for Militant even the capitalist press, at least the most sober of them, were forced to conclude that Militant had built up its support on the basis of arguments, ideas and adherence to the democratic traditions of the labour movement. In the Financial Times, Margaret van Hattem commented:

Where it [Militant] is strong, its strength derives partly from a high degree of activity and organisation, but equally from the fact that the most active party members do not object.

She debunked the right’s charges against Militant:

More important, they appear to be doing nothing dishonest or unconstitutional – there is nothing to stop the right wing from adopting the same tactics, but they are not doing so. (22)

Van Hattem went on to record the comments of an older, non-Militant worker in Liverpool: “They’re a breath of fresh air.” Moreover, membership of the Labour Party had actually increased following the swing towards the left and if the policies of Militant had been adopted, the influx of members into the party would have become a flood. One indication of this was the response to the Labour Party Young Socialists’ election broadcast, resulting in over 2,000 applications for membership in 1980.

A Labour Split?

On the prospects of a split within the Labour Party, Militant commented:

Where this has been tried by the right-wing social democrats in other countries like Japan, Holland and Australia, however, it has come to grief. With inevitable class polarisation taking place, these right-wing split-offs, after some initial success helped by press backing, have gradually lost support. (23)

One of the concerns of the capitalists, which explained the ferocity directed against Militant and the left in general, was what would happen if a new Labour government came to power. Such a government would come under terrific pressure from the working class for radical measures to be taken to solve the economic crisis. We pointed out:

Therefore, they (the capitalists) will be suggesting that the right wing adopt a division of labour. Behind the scenes they will be advocating that some of the right stay in the Labour Party as an obstacle to socialist measures in the new Labour government. (24)

If Labour had come to power it would probably have split, with the right reflecting the pressure of the capitalists within the cabinet. The disastrous events of the Labour government of 1929-31 could have been repeated. In 1931 the right did employ a division of labour. Herbert Morrison initially wanted to support the National Government. 

He was dissuaded from doing so by none other than Ramsey MacDonald, who told him in a conversation on Westminster Bridge to stay within the Labour Party “where he was needed”. While Jenkins, Owens, Williams and Rodgers – the ‘Gang of Four’ – were preparing to split from Labour, others on the right remained within the Labour Party on a mission to save it from the ‘left’.

The decision of the right to split from the Labour Party, clearly evident throughout 1980, produced panic within the ranks of the ‘official’ left. Tribune, for instance, launched a vitriolic attack on Militant in March 1980.

This emanated from Richard Clements, who was close to Michael Foot, who was elected as party leader in November 1981. Despite Militant’s request, Tribune refused to give the right to reply. Letters from Militant supporters were either edited out of all recognition or were completely suppressed.

The tone of Tribune’s attack was illustrated by the following statement:

If there were a political Trades Descriptions Act, the Militant Tendency would be sued for false pretences for its claim that it is ‘Marxist’. Its policies are a mishmash of Lenin’s slogans combined with a few selected quotations from some of the most uninspired of Trotsky’s thoughts. (25)

Clements even went on to claim that Militant had a “Stalinist organisation which makes the British Communist Party look like the Liberal Party in prayer.” Stalinism is not simply a term of political abuse, it is an exact term for describing the character and methods of the totalitarian bureaucracy which dominated the planned economy of the Soviet Union.

Militant pointed out that the accusation of ‘Stalinism’ coming from Tribune was a little rich in view of the fact that in its 40th anniversary issue Tribune had reprinted an obituary of Stalin written by Michael Foot first published at the time of his death in 1953:

Of course, the achievements of the Stalin era were monumental in scale… who, in the face of these colossal events, will dare to question Stalin’s greatness, how superhuman must be the mind which presided over these world shattering developments? (26)

Militant, following in the tradition of Trotsky, had always shown that Stalinism was a perversion of the genuine socialist ideas which led to the October Revolution. Never for a moment had Militant or its predecessors given credence to the dictatorial role of Stalin or his successors. (27)

The shift of Tribune to an openly hostile position towards Militant was a foretaste of how it was to develop in the future. From a journal of the left it became increasingly the mouthpiece of those former left MPs like Kinnock and Foot himself. They were evolving toward the right in opposition to Tony Benn and the leftward moving rank and file of the party. However for the time being, these attacks did not prevent the swing toward the left within the party and, with it, the buoyed-up support for Militant.

The conflict between right and left came to a head at the Labour Party special conference in January 1981, at Wembley. The conference firmly adopted the electoral college for the election of the party leader and endorsed the decisions of mandatory reselection and the other democratic gains chalked up at the October 1980 Labour Party conference. Wembley was the last straw for the Gang of Four. With the open backing of big business the day after the conference they announced that they were to form a separate Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The right-wing splitters were actually cashing in on the disillusionment of workers with their own past policies. There was disillusionment with the Tories, but many workers and particularly middle-class voters still remembered the retreats of the Labour government of 1974-79. This government had been dominated by the right. While strenuous efforts were made to keep these Labour renegades inside the fold, increasingly brutal attacks were made on Militant. Yet the ranks of the movement remained firm. For instance we reported in March 1981:

At a 2,000-strong Labour rally in Brighton last Saturday, the party’s activists and supporters gave their unmistakable answer to Labour’s enemies who have been furiously attacking the party’s ‘swing to the left’. (28)

At this meeting Michael Foot shared a platform with Militant supporter Rod Fitch, Labour’s new parliamentary candidate for Brighton, Kemptown. Foot’s acceptance of Militant supporters, lukewarm at best, was not to last long. Once the pressure came from the right he was to the fore in seeking to drive out what he called a “pestilential nuisance”.